Alan Ameche may be the greatest beneficiary of the upcoming induction of Terrell Davis into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. If Davis did enough in barely three healthy seasons in the NFL to reach Canton, didn’t “The Horse’’ gallop forward even more effectively for nearly six?
When Ameche first appeared in the Baltimore Colts’ backfield in 1955 after winning the Heisman Trophy the previous season at Wisconsin, he wasted little time making the announcement of his arrival. The first time he was handed the ball Ameche rambled 79 yards through the Chicago Bears’ defense for a touchdown.
It was no fluke.
By the end that game, Ameche had amassed 194 rushing yards on just 21 carries, a startling average of 9.24 yards per rush. By the end of that first season he was the NFL Rookie of the Year after having led the league in rushing with 961 yards and in touchdowns with nine, while averaging 4.5 yards a carry.
Ameche, the third player drafted that year, was also named to the Pro Bowl for the first of four straight years and an All-Pro for the first of five consecutive seasons before a torn Achilles tendon on December 4, 1960, ended both his career and the Colts’ reign as the NFL’s top team.
At that point, Ameche five times had finished in the Top 10 in the league in rushing touchdowns and points in rushing yards four times. In addition to leading the league his rookie year, Ameche finished second in 1958 with 791 rushing yards and fourth in 1956 with 858, numbers amassed in only a 12-game season.
None of those yards were more important than the one he gained on December 28, 1958. That was the yard that not only made football history; it made pro football.
With the Colts and New York Giants battling in the first overtime game in NFL history, a national TV audience witnessed what has long been called “the greatest game ever played.’’ With seven turnovers and a total of eight fumbles it was not — at least from an aesthetic standpoint. But it was from a historical one for it was the night the entire country viewed the NFL and began a national obsession with the game.
When the game ended tied, 17-17, none of the players were sure what would happen next. Colts’ quarterback Johnny Unitas later said, “We were standing on the sidelines waiting to see what came next. All of a sudden, the officials came over and said, ‘Send the captain out. We’re going to flip a coin to see who will receive.’ That was the first we heard of the overtime period.”
The last they heard of it was Ameche slamming over right tackle for the winning score with 6:45 left in that overtime period.
After an 11-play drive put the ball at the Giants’ one-yard line, Unitas stood in the Colts’ huddle and called “16 slant,’’ a power run over right tackle. The Colts had seldom run the slant that day, instead rushing more frequently inside the tackles. But Ameche burst through a massive hole and fell into the end zone for a win that earned him not only the winning player’s share of $4,718.77, but an extra $500 to appear that night on the Ed Sullivan Show, the most-watched show on television at the time. He only got the extra money because Unitas turned it down, preferring to return to Baltimore with his team instead.
“That was probably the shortest run I ever made and the most remembered,’’ Ameche would later say.
It was the first of two consecutive NFL championships Ameche and the Colts would win. In 1960 they seemed headed for a third with a 6-3 record and a hold on first place in the Western Conference when, on his third carry against the Detroit Lions on December 4, Ameche tore his Achilles.
The Colts didn’t win another game that season, and he never played again.
Although the injury was serious, it was expected he would return in 1961. But a combination of a difficult rehab and the odd, ongoing dislike coach Weeb Ewbank held for Ameche from the day he was drafted convinced him he’d had enough.
In Dan Manoyan’s biography of Ameche, “The Story of The Horse,’’ Colts’ Hall-of-Fame defensive end Gino Marchetti explained the contentious relationship between his future business partner and Ewbank.
“It was really strange,” said Marchetti, recalling the first time he ever saw Ameche. “I remember it was before camp opened (in 1955), and I was walking with Weeb Ewbank. We were coming from a meeting and heading to chow, and Alan was walking ahead of us.
“I remember it because Weeb made a really strange comment that stuck with me over the years. He sees Alan in front of us and he says, ‘There is our big draft choice. He was babied in college. He was spoiled at Wisconsin. They didn’t baby you in college, did they Gino?’ Weeb asked me. I told him, ‘No, I wasn’t babied.’
“It was so strange because here Weeb hadn’t even had a chance to know the guy, and he’d already made up his mind about him. The really strange thing is that Weeb never changed his mind about Alan. He never, never liked Alan for some reason, and I never could figure it out. Alan worked hard, he played hard, he was a good blocker. He did everything that was asked of him, but Weeb would never give the guy a break.
“The only thing I can think of is Alan had a habit of always being barely late for everything … meetings, practice, pregame meals. Things like that really bothered Weeb. Alan would come out to practice sometimes with his shoes untied, and he’d have to bend over to tie them up on the field. All of those things bothered Weeb and put a strain on their relationship.”
The loss of Ameche put a strain on the Colts too, one that eventually cost Ewbank his job in the opinion of Hall-of-Fame wide receiver Raymond Berry.
“You know Weeb lost his job two years after Alan retired, and the reason was we got overbalanced throwing the ball,’’ Berry told Manoyan. “We really didn’t have an effective running game after Alan retired.’’
According to Ameche’s teammates, Ewbank rode him mercilessly, but he also rode him to two NFL titles and out of the obscurity that had been the Colts until his arrival. When he retired, Ameche had rushed for 4,045 yards and scored 44 touchdowns, started all 70 games he played in and, when all was said and done, he was named to the NFL’s all-decade team of the 1950s.
He is one of only four players on that team not enshrined in Canton.
On that damp evening of December 28, 1958 in Yankee Stadium when Ameche ended the first overtime game in playoff history there were 15 Hall of Famers involved. Thanks to Terrell Davis, maybe it’s time Alan “The Horse’’ Ameche became number 16.